On October 4, 2011 members of the Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York gathered at City Hall Park to demand an end to the harsh and discriminatory discipline practices and lock-down conditions in many of the city’s public schools. Over 100 students, parents, teachers and community members shared their demands for the Department of Education to reduce high suspension rates and implement alternative policies that focus on resolving conflict in positive ways. Students then marched to NYPD headquarters at One Police Plaza to deliver their demand that Police Commissioner Ray Kelly stop the over-policing of our schools and put an end to student arrests for school discipline matters. Abeer Ahmed, a 17-year old student at Queens Collegiate High School and a member of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) spoke at the City Hall action, asking, “What is the definition of a school? An institution where youth go to obtain an education, a place where us young people go to learn…right? But how are we supposed to learn with all these metal detectors, school safety officers and cops in our schools?”
Over 100,000 New York City students pass through metal detectors every day, and there are more than 5,000 NYPD School Safety Officers patrolling school hallways—compared to about 3,000 guidance counselors in our schools.
NYC Council Member and former public school teacher, Daniel Dromm (D-Queens), said, “If we had 10,000 guidance counselors to work with our students, to prepare our students for college rather than creating a police state when you walk through the door, maybe we would have more success in our schools. We need to fund our schools, we need to find discipline measures that work.”
In the 2008-2009 school year, there were 73,000 suspensions issued in NYC schools. Over 16,000 were Superintendent’s Suspensions ranging from 6 days to 1 year, with an average length of 25 days. Students of color, students with disabilities and students from low-income communities are impacted the most by harsh suspensions. More than 38,000 Black students are suspended each year, and the vast majority of those suspensions are for minor misbehavior. Esperanza Vasquez, a mother of two sons attending public schools in the Bronx, said, “Unsafe school environments and punitive disciplinary practices are pushing our children out of school. Their rights as human beings and as students are not being respected and they are systematically being arrested for minor infractions and incidents.”
“In my sophomore year I was suspended for getting into a fight,” said Abeer. “I later found out I was supposed to have a peer mediation session, which my school had, but I was not given a peer mediation session. I was immediately suspended. According to the student Discipline Code there are several things schools can do before they think about suspending a student.”
In New York City, there are examples of schools using positive alternatives. At Bushwick Campus in Brooklyn, students lead conflict resolution workshops in ninth grade advisory classes, and staff are developing strategies for implementing restorative practices. James Baldwin and Humanities Prep in Manhattan both have restorative “fairness committees” that work with students and staff to resolve discipline matters in a way that engages those affected by an incident in finding a solution together to repair the harm done to the school community.
Chima Agwu, a 19 year-old student at Belmont Preparatory High School in the Bronx, spoke about his work as a peer mediator. “My job as a mediator is to help students resolve their conflicts without the need for suspensions,” said Chima. “Mediation is a positive alternative to harsh disciplinary penalties, meaning that students are not being forced to miss school for so many days. And mediation is an important factor in creating a positive school climate. That is why we as the Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York offer solutions for the Discipline Code to list strategies like counseling, restorative practices, mediations and confliction resolution as required policies that schools must use.”
For the last year, Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York members have met with senior administrators at Tweed and testified at public forums, such as the annual hearing on revisions to the Discipline Code, to educate officials on proven alternatives to suspensions and metal detectors such as Restorative Practices and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. At the October 4 action, Bushwick Stage Nerds Street Theater Group, based at the Bushwick Campus in Brooklyn, performed spoken word and street theater to demonstrate two different experiences – one of students being searched as they go through metal detectors in the morning, and one of students using a restorative circle in their school.
There is a growing recognition by the Department of Education that school climate is an important factor in student retention and academic achievement. Official language in the Discipline Code lists counseling and other strategies, such as restorative practices and conflict resolution, as options schools should use that would avoid harsh disciplinary penalties. But there is no formal requirement that principals and other school staff use these approaches. Nor are there adequate accountability and monitoring mechanisms to ensure that schools are currently implementing them.
In other cities, conflict resolution and problem solving strategies are embedded in officially mandated citywide practice. For example, after adopting restorative practices, Denver Public Schools saw a 68 percent drop in police tickets and a 40 percent reduction in out of school suspensions. When 102 Florida schools implemented Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), disciplinary referrals fell by 25 percent.
Actions such as the one held in New York City are taking place in 28 other cities as part of the Dignity in Schools Campaign National Week of Action on School Pushout. Other cities where communities are calling for positive approaches to school discipline include: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Jackson (MS), Lawrenceville (GA), Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, Oakland, Philadelphia, Portland (OR), Raleigh (NC), St. Louis, Washington, DC and more. Visit www.dignityinschools.org to learn more.
Photos are available, please contact Shoshi Chowdhury.
The Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York coalition calls for citywide funding and implementation of positive, school-wide approaches to discipline that improve school climate, reduce conflict, and increase learning. Members include: Advocates for Children, Center for Community Alternatives, Children’s Defense Fund-NY, Coalition for Gender Equity in Schools, Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), Future of Tomorrow, Make the Road New York, Mass Transit Street Theatre, NESRI, New Settlement Apartments Parent Action Committee, NYCLU, Pumphouse Projects, Sistas and Brothas United, Teachers Unite, Urban Youth Collaborative, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Youth on the Move and Youth Represent.